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The following pages, written with all the impartiality possible, have, for their object, to make known in France one of the most remarkable personages of the New World—General Lee, commander-in-chief of the Southern armies in the great Civil War, which desolated the United States for four years, from April, 1861, to April, 1865.
In our age there is a want of character. The one we are going to describe is like that of the ancients in its simplicity, true, full of humility, deeply Christian, and having for its only motive a sentiment of duty. In the midst of the general abasement of the moral level, in these times, when success excuses and consecrates everything, the greatness of General Lee's soul, lifting itself a hundredfold above those of his contemporaries, soothes and fortifies troubled consciences.
The most prejudiced reader cannot but admire this life, entirely devoted to the idea of duty. Greater in adversity than in success, this man of worth struggled on to the end without despair, and yielded without a sacrifice of his honour. From the time of Hannibal, no captain has been seen to support a struggle more unequal with forces more disproportionate, and having before him the prospect of a more gloomy future.
All this period of four years recalls, by the magnitude of the means employed, the number of the combatants, and the importance of the interests at stake, the most celebrated wars of antiquity. It forms a great epoch in history. The final interview between Lee and Grant involuntarily calls forth the recollection of that which took place between Hannibal and Scipio, with this difference, that the latter preceded the battle instead of following it . Like Hannibal, seeking to induce his fellow-citizens to accept the hard conditions of the conqueror, Lee, in his retirement, after 1865, did all that depended on him, by words and example, to appease resentment, and re-establish harmony. "His character and life," says an English author, "afford a complete answer to the reproaches commonly cast on money-grabbing, mechanical America. A country which has given birth to men like him, and those who followed him, may look the chivalry of Europe in the face without shame, for the fatherlands of Sidney and of Bayard never produced a nobler soldier, gentleman, and Christian, than Robert E Lee."
The same motive which animated the author in writing a life of his uncle, has animated the translator in rendering that life into English. It is not well that the memory of a man like General Lee should fade away without the world being made acquainted with his character and virtues.
This must be the translator's plea to justify him in the course he has taken. He is well aware of the existence of more than one life of General Lee, compiled in English; but they were written by Americans, published in America, and, therefore, are more or less imbued with the American style and mode of feeling. So far, they are unsuitable to European taste. They are, besides, long, and somewhat tiresome in their description of battles, and in their general minuteness of details.
The present work is of a different stamp: political dissension, apart from a candid inquiry into the real causes of the Civil War, is, as much as possible, avoided, and there is a scrupulous desire evinced throughout to wound no one. The man's life and doings are presented in naked truthfulness; the dignity and nobility of his character are made fully apparent; he stands before us as one of the world's heroes, whose fame should be not merely national, but cosmopolitan, yielding an undying 'example for all times and peoples.
To the English, a life of General Lee should be peculiarly acceptable. He belonged to a State where the population is, in race and manners, more thoroughly English than in any other part of America, and where it is the pride of the people to keep to the customs and traditions bequeathed to them by their fathers. Without entering into a discussion as to whether the Virginians, and Lee among them, were right or wrong in the cause they espoused, leaving, in fact, each reader to his own opinion on the merits of the case, one cannot but admire the burning patriotism, the unflinching loyalty, the continual perseverance, the indomitable pluch with which the Southerners, amid untold difficulties, bore the brunt of a struggle so unequal for the long space of four years—conduct in striking contrast with some more recent events in Europe. Such virtues, so displayed, are enough to convince us that British courage will flourish transplanted into other soils; the branch is not unworthy of the trunk, and we may well be proud of the relationship existing between ourselves and the comparative handful of men whose deeds are commemorated in the following pages.
The conviction that the character and achievements of General Lee, although in England he is justly esteemed a great man, are not so widely known and appreciated as they ought to be, has led the translator to offer this recital, compiled by one having peculiar facilities for the work, to the English public. The opportunity seems a fit one, inasmuch as the scenes in which the hero acted, and, indeed, the hero himself, belong now to the past, and passions and feelings on both sides of the Atlantic, although not dead, have somewhat subsided. It is only at such times, in
periods of calm, which, indeed, may be but intermittent, that characters can be duly estimated. Undoubtedly, every man in this world has a mission to fulfil—if he will. That of Lee was a great one, and he fulfilled it well . There is no knowing what may be the complications to arise in any one's lifetime; they may be such as to need, if not call forth, such characters as the one under consideration, and it is the translator's wish—as it was that of the author—to leave on record a worthy account of a worthy example.